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Would You Know If Your Company Had A Sexual Harassment Problem?

Most sexual harassment cases go unreported, leaving companies at risk for legal action. Here’s how some workplace cultures thwart harassment issues.

Would You Know If Your Company Had A Sexual Harassment Problem?
[Photo: Alexandre Chambon/Unsplash]

In the era of the #metoo and #TimesUp movements, sexual harassment and assault allegations are serious business, toppling even powerful industry figures. But if sexual harassment was happening in your organization, would you know it? A recent CareerBuilder survey found that a whopping 72% of employees who experience sexual harassment don’t report it.

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There are a few reasons employees don’t report such behavior, says Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Women’s Law Center. Even standing up to it can be difficult. Employees may fear retaliation or may be concerned that their employers won’t take action. “They believe that their employers won’t do anything that would make a difference in what they’re experiencing,” Graves says. The CareerBuilder survey found that most employees didn’t speak up because they didn’t want to be labeled a troublemaker, or lose their job, or feared it was their word against the other person’s and they might not be believed.


Related: The Real Reasons Women Don’t Report Sexual Harassment


However, when such workplace misconduct goes unreported, companies are at greater risk of lawsuits and other liability because patterns of abuse are allowed to continue and worsen. “Harassment, in many ways, is a symptom typically of a workplace culture that has some challenges,” she says.

How do you take action to create a workplace culture that shuts down harassment, and where those who experience it are more likely to report it? Experts say such organizations have some commonalities.

They Study Their Cultures

To understand whether your workplace culture is supportive of employees or not, it’s important to get a baseline understanding of where your organizational culture is strong and where it needs work, says crisis management expert Constance Hubbell, president of Quincy, Massachusetts-based communications firm The Hubbell Group. She recommends conducting anonymous surveys to explore how well employees understand harassment, and their feelings about reporting it if they experience it or see it happening among their coworkers.

Healthy cultures have a few important hallmarks, says S. Chris Edmonds, CEO of The Purposeful Culture Group, a Conifer, Colorado, workplace culture consultancy, and author of The Culture Engine: A Framework for Driving Results, Inspiring Your Employees, and Transforming Your Workplace. Key areas you should be examining and measuring include:

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  • How much employees care about their coworkers and team members
  • How engaged people are in their jobs, and how satisfied they are with their work
  • Whether employees feel respected by their leaders and coworkers
  • Whether employees feel they have a voice and that their views are taken seriously

If you see signs that your culture is weak in these areas, you may have an issue with employees feeling comfortable reporting harassment, he says.


Related: Exactly What To Do If You’ve Been Sexually Harassed At Work


They Review Their Policies and Procedures

Most companies have sexual harassment policies and reporting procedures, but they may not be organized in the best way to encourage reporting, Graves says. It’s important that the system not be set up so that the offense has to rise to the level where it would be actionable under the law before it’s deemed worthy of reporting. “Employers should be looking to encourage their employees to report early and often and when they have concerns,” she says. They may do so through employee communication vehicles like email messages and newsletters, leadership talks, training, and other ways the organization interacts with its employees. In addition, it’s important to communicate the expectation that such behavior is not tolerated by the organization and should not be tolerated by peers.

Hubbell says that the best reporting procedure includes a reporting point of contact who is not the individual’s supervisor and perhaps someone outside of HR. If your employees think that the individual responsible for handling reports has a greater duty to protect the company than to ensure that the employee’s complaint is taken seriously and handled appropriately, they will be less likely to come forward. Consider training a trusted employee to be a point of contact for complaints.


Related: Managers: What You Should Do When An Employee Reports Harassment


They Have A Broader Definition Of Safety

When leaders in an organization think of “safety,” they often think in terms of accidents. But cultures that thwart sexual harassment have a definition that includes their workers’ well-being and protection from harassment, Edmonds says.

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Such cultures also emphasize protection throughout the process, Hubbell says. They not only work to prevent sexual harassment, but they protect those who report it from retaliation. Many have a fair investigation process that takes steps to protect the parties involved until a determination of wrongdoing has been reached.

They Tailor Their Training

While some bemoan the ineffectiveness of training, it’s an essential part of preventing workplace sexual harassment, Graves says. But it’s not effective to just choose an off-the-shelf training solution. Instead, teaching employees about what constitutes harassment and how to prevent it requires tailoring to your company’s specific work scenarios.

Your company needs clear, written policies, and training should be based on those policies, reflecting the real-life work experiences of your employees. If your company employs salespeople who host events or dinners, or construction workers who are working on job sites, those scenarios should be part of the training so employees understand behavioral expectations, Graves says. If employees are interacting with suppliers or customers, those scenarios should be reflected as well.

“The employer has an obligation to make sure that it’s well understood in their workplace so that you don’t have anyone legitimately saying, ‘I thought this was perfectly okay here,'” she says.

They Value Diversity

Graves says that homogeneous workplaces are also more prone to harassment than those that are diverse. “Looking at some of your [company’s] broader issues around who is in leadership is a strategy for addressing harassment and will send an extremely important signal to your entire workplace that you take this seriously, that you understand that harassment is a symptom of the overall problem of gender inequality, and that in your workplace, you want to take steps to address it,” she says.

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About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books

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